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COVID-19 has changed our world in many ways. How we shop, work, govern, and attend school have all been altered due to this global pandemic. Education has been hit particularly hard. Closing out the 2019 – 2020 school year was a chaotic and disjointed effort for most school districts. Educators, students, and parents all struggled with online learning, a lack of grading systems for this type of learning, and no end-of-year celebrations. Now educators are planning for the start of a very uncertain upcoming school year. One thing is clear: schools will look, teach, clean, and operate differently than before. Green school planning can help school leaders and educators do this more effectively and efficiently.

What Does Going Back to School Mean?

The start of the 2020 – 2021 school year looks nothing like the start of the 2019 – 2020 school year. Educators had just a few months to redesign the American schooling model. To make matters worse, much of this planning took place without ample resources and with many factors still not fully understood.

Most school districts are starting from the premise that going back to school might be a part-time proposition. With health and state officials calling on schools to practice social distancing, we are seeing a number of blended learning models where student learn from home at least part of the time. When they do attend brick-and-mortar schools, it is for fewer days per week or fewer hours per day. Even when students are at school, they are spending more time outside of traditional classroom spaces to spread out for social distancing. There is also a concern that students may have to return to full-time, at-home learning when flu season hits. This means that online learning will be part of most education models for the foreseeable future. All these factors require schools to shift traditional instructional practices away from direct instruction and in-class learning.

Besides educational changes, school leaders face other challenges as well. Cleaning school facilities to reduce the spread of germs and viruses will be a daily requirement. Districts need to reassess how to feed and transport students to provide them with the healthiest and safest environments possible.

These changes are taking place at a time when schools face enormous fiscal challenges. California school funding is an excellent example of this point (Cano, 2020). School districts were already feeling the economic pinch from increasing healthcare and pension costs prior to the pandemic, with seven out of ten school districts engaged in deficit spending. COVID-19 has drastically reduced state and local revenues which pay for schools. This prompted Governor Newsom to revise his budget for next year, calling for a 10% decrease in school funding (the previous budget projected a modest increase for schools). As a result, school districts will need to significantly reduce their expenditures, while potentially increasing what they currently spend on technology, cleaning, and staffing. California is not unique in this example. This situation is playing out across the nation as school leaders prepare for the biggest challenge ever to face American public education.

Why Green Schools Are Better Prepared for These Challenges:

Schools that focus on stewardship and sustainability have major advantages in addressing these issues over schools that do not. Here is why.

Education for Sustainability: A growing number of schools are beginning to approach learning through the lens of education for sustainability (EfS). In these schools, students tackle real-world environmental issues and use science, math, language arts, design, research, and other critical content areas to come up with solutions. EfS curriculum is highly adaptable and can be modified for at-home and virtual learning environments. For example, instead of completing a school cafeteria waste audit, students can do a kitchen waste audit and use their results to develop a waste reduction plan for their family.

A frequent concern cited by teachers looking to deliver quality online curriculum is the difficulty they face in finding meaningful instructional materials and keeping students engaged in remote learning. Compounding this problem are the endless online resource lists offered by education and environmental organizations. Where to begin?! One place to start for sustainability-minded educators is Green Schools National Network (GSNN). GSNN has posted a collection of online EfS units that can be completed independently at home or with teacher direction. These units engage students and reinforce other critical skills in science, math, language arts, and civics.

Educating for sustainability has many benefits for when students return to school. EfS instruction can take place indoors, but it is also a great outdoor activity. In California’s Encinitas Union School District (EUSD), elementary students frequently tackle innovative EfS projects on their campuses and in their community. Students worked with the Leichtag Foundation’s lead scientist on a National Science Foundation study that measured the effects of native versus non-native plants on local pollinators. Other students worked with local university students to measure air quality in front of their school during drop-off and pick-up times. This study resulted in a districtwide campaign to eliminate vehicle idling. Fourth-grade students from Ocean Knoll Elementary worked with the local YMCA to develop a waste reduction/recycling plan. All these learning experiences required students to leave the classroom and engage in real-world science, math, and design work. Highly engaging, environmentally-based lessons like these are easy to adapt to meet social distancing requirements, without additional costs. The biggest challenge involves reframing our belief that academic learning only happens in classrooms.

Clean and Healthy Schools:

Another major challenge facing schools when students return will be how to keep their campuses clean and healthy to keep viruses from spreading. Creating clean and healthy school environments is one of the foundations of the green schools movement, as well as one of the three pillars of the U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools program (U.S. Department of Education, n.d.)

A big concern for healthy school advocates is that school leaders may promote the use of unsafe chemicals and cleaning agents in the rush to ensure clean school campuses. Healthy schools are more than just clean. They are also safe for students and staff. That means that we should use the safest chemicals and cleaning agents possible. Many green schools (as well as universities, hospitals, and hotels) have addressed this by utilizing effective but safe cleaning agents such as stabilized aqueous ozone, which is created using a machine that changes the chemical structure of water. This safe but effective cleaning agent is one of many ways to create green AND healthy schools (Canadian Coalition for Green Health Care, 2017).

Another tool that schools can use to aid in safe and efficient cleaning is an electrostatic sprayer. Electrostatic spray technology has been around for over 60 years; its use for surface disinfection is a recent development (Velez, 2019). The technology works by creating an electric charge in the green cleaning agent as it sprays through a nozzle. This electric charge causes the cleaning agent to stick to and wrap around surfaces more evenly. Surfaces that are sprayed using this technology do not have to be wiped down every time. This allows for fast and effective daily cleaning for all surfaces.

Healthy students and staff are more resistant to disease. That is why we need to look beyond cleaning when we consider green and healthy schools. Access to clean air and natural light are stressed in green schools. Nutritious, healthy eating and scratch food preparation are promoted in green schools. Taking care of our environment, without the use of harmful pesticides and herbicides, is also stressed in green schools. Finally, green schools teach students about these and other important healthy behaviors, so they can transfer these life skills to their homes and communities.

Green Schools Can Save Money:

The number one issue that most school administrators will face this coming school year will likely be smaller budgets. As mentioned previously, school leaders have dealt with rising costs in healthcare and pensions for a number of years. Now, the COVID-19 pandemic stands to bring declining revenues for many school districts. High numbers of students are already leaving traditional school districts for online charter schools as a result of the pandemic. This loss of revenue will combine with declining state revenues due to the recession, which will be further aggravated by states and the federal government applying their resources to other impacted sectors. This will add up to less money coming to schools and a difficult fiscal future for most school districts.

Green schools can help on this front as well. One of the major misperceptions around green schools is that they are expensive. If a district is building a new school, building it to LEED specifications does not have to increase costs. It may be expensive up front to install solar panels on roofs and solar tubes in classrooms, but these types of capital expenditures can save millions of dollars in annual energy bills that are paid from operational budgets.

Even if a district does not have the means to invest in large-scale projects, smaller resource saving projects can save districts money in many ways. Investing in more efficient waste reduction practices and recycling can save thousands of dollars in waste hauling fees. Harvesting water in rain barrels is an inexpensive way to reduce irrigation costs. Energy efficient heating and cooling systems have a rapid return on investment. There are countless ways that green schools can help school districts save money. Involve students in identifying and designing these cost-saving projects to expand their impact beyond budgets.

Green School Synergy:

Educating for sustainability, keeping schools clean and safe, and helping districts save money are all important. Green schools that connect these benefits get even more out of the process. Green schools tend to use their grounds and the community as real-world laboratories for student learning, and this creates benefits all around. One benefit is that students who learn about their environment can help assess and create cleaner and healthier schools. EUSD has used student research and design to create more efficient water gardens, capture rainwater runoff, and improve recycling efforts. Students have partnered with local businesses to measure energy savings from solar tubes and LED lighting. Other partners have included software engineers, farmers, local nonprofit leaders, and government officials. In all of these examples, students were active partners with adults. Their work addressed real issues and resulted in improved plans, which EUSD implemented.

Green Schools for Everyone:

COVID-19 is challenging education leaders to rethink schooling for the 21st century, and beyond. Let’s take this challenge and turn it into an opportunity. The best way for schools to move forward during this pandemic is to be a green school. Green schools are better adapted to provide meaningful learning opportunities at school or home. Green schools are ready to help students with social distancing through outdoor learning experiences, as well as stay disease free through healthier cleaning. Finally, students in green schools can help education leaders save valuable resources while learning important skills that can transfer to home and community. Green schools matter – now more than ever.

Author Bio:
Dr. Timothy Baird recently retired as superintendent of Encinitas Union School District (EUSD). His retirement caps 10 years of service to EUSD, 16 years of service as a superintendent, and 39 years of service as a public educator. During Dr. Baird’s tenure at EUSD, the district was recognized as a 2014 U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon School District and won recognition for its innovative use of technology, being one of the first districts in the nation with a one-to-one iPad program starting in 2011. EUSD also received state and national awards for developing learner personalized teaching practices and for its focus on teaching to the whole child. Since retiring, Dr. Baird has remained active as a writer, presenter, and educational leadership consultant. He is a frequent presenter at environmental, technology, and curricular conferences.

Article originally published and reprinted with permission from the Green Schools National Network, within the Green Schools Catalyst Quarterly.